The Greenpeace activists who crashed a Superman-styled drone into an EDF facility near Lyon, France on July 3 pulled off the latest of several stunts designed to highlight the vulnerability of France’s ageing nuclear reactors. In a country whose energy mix is built on nuclear power, the strategy is working: the Superman incident came just before a French parliamentary report called out security “failings” at some facilities. Revelations of faulty welding at the new Flamanville reactor have since added yet more fuel to the fire.
France’s anti-nuclear groups have been successful in capturing media attention – and public support – but that hasn’t changed the facts on the ground for the energy sector. France is heavily reliant on nuclear energy and has been since the 1980s, after the Messmer plan (named for the French premier who introduced it) called for a transition to an economy powered exclusively by nuclear energy. France’s 58 nuclear power plants accounted for 71.6% of the country’s electricity generation last year, the highest national share of any country in the world.
President Emmanuel Macron came into office promising to significantly curtail nuclear’s role in the energy mix, keeping to predecessor François Hollande’s pledge to cut it from 75% to 50% by 2025. Just a few months later, though, Macron and environment minister Nicolas Hulot found themselves walking back that pledge. The new government was forced to admit the 2025 target was impossible to achieve without putting France at risk of energy shortages and jeopardizing the country’s carbon emissions targets.
Greenpeace hasn’t taken kindly to that change of course. This past April, Greenpeace energy representative Alix Mazounie said the group felt “Hulot is laying down in front of EDF [the national electricity utility].” Soon afterwards, the group marked the one-year anniversary of Macron’s election by writing off what it called a “year of claptrap for the climate” and accusing the French president of letting EDF write the country’s energy policy.
The Eastern Front
Macron and France have gotten off easy compared to one of the environmental organization’s favorite targets: Rosatom. Greenpeace’s criticism has only intensified as the Russian nuclear energy giant has emerged as the global leader in overseas projects, signing a number of high-profile deals to build new reactors everywhere from Finland to Turkey.
Greenpeace attacks Rosatom’s projects using its typical focus on “safety.” For example, the organization has persistently opposed the Astravets plant Rosatom is building for Belarus. Astravets has undergone outside evaluations from the IAEA and the World Association of Nuclear Operators, and IAEA Director Yukiya Amano has praised what he called “one of the most advanced nuclear ‘newcomer countries’” for making use of IAEA expert peer review and “giving utmost considerations to nuclear safety.” The Astravets facility most recently passed strict EU safety “stress tests” this year.
None of this, of course, has convinced its opponents at Greenpeace.
In another recent example, Greenpeace fed hyperbolic coverage surrounding the Akademik Lomonosov project, the first civilian floating nuclear power plant in the world. Greenpeace has bestowed the project with colorful epithets like “Nuclear Titanic,” despite the fact that the technology underpinning the Akademik Lomonosov is a natural progression of the nuclear-powered submarines, aircraft carriers, and icebreakers that have been navigating ocean waters for over 60 years.
As Dale Klein, the former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, emphasized, Greenpeace’s labeling of the floating plant as “Nuclear Titanic” is “just a scare tactic. It’s just to make people think about an accident of some kind. So it has no basis in science, and it’s really just meant to scare people when you use those kinds of statements.”
Ironically, the Akademik Lomonosov is designed to replace a highly polluting thermal power plant in Chukotka, a remote Russian region above the Arctic Circle. Renewables such as wind and solar are far less feasible due to the area’s severe climate. Temperatures drop down to below -30°C during long polar nights. Greenpeace itself outlined the issues facing renewable energy projects in Chukotka in a 2017 report. Nuclear is the only low-carbon option for this corner of the Arctic, but Greenpeace implicitly seems to prefer Chukotka stick with deadly coal-fired power generation.
The real stakes at play
The Akademic Lomonosov saga isn’t the only occurrence of Greenpeace or likeminded groups insisting all economies – developed and developing both – strive for “100% renewable energy.” Any assertion to the contrary is derided as simply “lobbying by vested interests in the fossil fuel industry.” Fighting against coal, oil, and gas is one thing, but are they going after one of the very power sources vital to a decarbonized future? Nuclear, at the end of the day, is a low-carbon clean energy source.
This isn’t a theoretical debate. Around the globe, nuclear projects are being shuttered as countries look for alternatives. Germany’s “Energiewende” strategy, for one, will eventually see the country’s nuclear fleet phased out. While the point of Energiewende is to transition Germany to an energy mix powered by renewable energy, the country’s emissions have never dipped significantly below those recorded in 2009. Angela Merkel’s decision to close down Germany’s nuclear facilities after the 2011 Fukushima disaster has benefited the German coal industry. In 2017, coal still made up nearly 37% of German power production.
Prematurely shuttering France’s nuclear plants would have the same impact. While Macron may be planning large-scale tenders for wind and solar projects, putting nuclear capacity out of commission too soon would set back the country’s decarbonization program. That harsh reality is what forced Macron to backtrack on his nuclear pledge.
As the French parliamentary report made clear, the nuclear sector in France is in need of reform and greater supervision. As the nuclear reactors built under the Messmer plan near the end of their original operational horizons, EDF needs to answer hard questions about prolonging their lifespans and integrating France’s nuclear tradition into a renewables-focused future. Crashing Superman drones into nuclear plants, though, isn’t going to help France reduce carbon emissions.